Happy Samhain

A reprise of my traditional Hallowe’en post of past years:

It is that time of year again. What has become a time of disinhibited hijinx and mayhem, and a growing marketing bonanza for the kitsch-manufacturers and -importers, has primeval origins as the Celtic New Year’s Eve, Samhain (pronounced “sow-en”). The harvest is over, summer ends and winter begins, the Old God dies and returns to the Land of the Dead to await his rebirth at Yule, and the land is cast into darkness. The veil separating the worlds of the living and the dead becomes frayed and thin, and dispossessed dead mingle with the living, perhaps seeking a body to possess for the next year as their only chance to remain connected with the living, who hope to scare them away with ghoulish costumes and behavior, escape their menace by masquerading as one of them, or placate them with offerings of food, in hopes that they will go away before the new year comes. For those prepared, a journey to the other side could be made at this time.

With Christianity, perhaps because with calendar reform it was no longer the last day of the year, All Hallows’ Eve became decathected, a day for innocent masquerading and fun, taking its name Hallowe’en as a contraction and corruption of All Hallows’ Eve. All Saints’ Day may have originated in its modern form with the 8th century Pope Gregory III. Hallowe’en customs reputedly came to the New World with the Irish immigrants of the 1840’s. The prominence of trick-or-treating has a slightly different origin, however.

The custom of trick-or-treating is thought to have originated not with the Irish Celts, but with a ninth-century European custom called souling. On November 2, All Souls Day, early Christians would walk from village to village begging for “soul cakes,” made out of square pieces of bread with currants. The more soul cakes the beggars would receive, the more prayers they would promise to say on behalf of the dead relatives of the donors. At the time, it was believed that the dead remained in limbo for a time after death, and that prayer, even by strangers, could expedite a soul’s passage to heaven.

Jack-o’-lanterns were reportedly originally turnips; the Irish began using pumpkins after they immigrated to North AMerica, given how plentiful they were here.

The Jack-o-lantern custom probably comes from Irish folklore. As the tale is told, a man named Jack, who was notorious as a drunkard and trickster, tricked Satan into climbing a tree. Jack then carved an image of a cross in the tree’s trunk, trapping the devil up the tree. Jack made a deal with the devil that, if he would never tempt him again, he would promise to let him down the tree.

According to the folk tale, after Jack died, he was denied entrance to Heaven because of his evil ways, but he was also denied access to Hell because he had tricked the devil. Instead, the devil gave him a single ember to light his way through the frigid darkness. The ember was placed inside a hollowed-out turnip to keep it glowing longer.

Folk traditions that were in the past associated wtih All Hallows’ Eve took much of their power, as with the New Year’s customs about which I write here every Dec. 31st, from the magic of boundary states, transition and liminality.

The idea behind ducking, dooking or bobbing for apples seems to have been that snatching a bite from the apple enables the person to grasp good fortune. Samhain is a time for getting rid of weakness, as pagans once slaughtered weak animals which were unlikely to survive the winter. A common ritual calls for writing down weaknesses on a piece of paper or parchment, and tossing it into the fire. There used to be a custom of placing a stone in the hot ashes of the bonfire. If in the morning a person found that the stone had been removed or had cracked, it was a sign of bad fortune. Nuts have been used for divination: whether they burned quietly or exploded indicated good or bad luck. Peeling an apple and throwing the peel over one’s shoulder was supposed to reveal the initial of one’s future spouse. One way of looking for omens of death was for peope to visit churchyards

La Catrina – In Mexican folk culture, the Catr...

The Witches’ Sabbath aspect of Hallowe’en seems to result from Germanic influence, and fusion with the notion of Walpurgisnacht. (Familiar with the magnificent musical evocation of this, Mussorgsky’s Night on Bare Mountain?) Although probably not yet in a position to shape mainstream American Hallowe’en traditions, Mexican Dia de los Muertos observances have started to contribute some delightful and whimsical iconography to our encounter with the eerie and unearthly as well.

What was Hallowe’en like forty or fifty years ago in the U.S. when, bastardized as it has become with respect to its pagan origins, it retained a much more traditional flair? For my purposes, suffice it to say that it was before the era of the pay-per-view ’spooky-world’ type haunted attractions and its Martha Stewart yuppification with, as this irreverent Salon article from several years ago [via walker] puts it, monogrammed jack-o’-lanterns and the like. Related, a 1984 essay by Richard Seltzer, frequently referenced in other sources, entitled “Why Bother to Save Hallowe’en?”, argues as I do that reverence for Hallowe’en is good for the soul.

“Maybe at one time Hallowe’en helped exorcise fears of death and ghosts and goblins by making fun of them. Maybe, too, in a time of rigidly prescribed social behavior, Hallowe’en was the occasion for socially condoned mischief — a time for misrule and letting loose. Although such elements still remain, the emphasis has shifted and the importance of the day and its rituals has actually grown.…(D)on’t just abandon a tradition that you yourself loved as a child, that your own children look forward to months in advance, and that helps preserve our sense of fellowship and community with our neighbors in the midst of all this madness.”

That would be anathema to certain segments of society, however. Hallowe’en certainly inspires a backlash by fundamentalists who consider it a blasphemous abomination. ‘Amateur scholar’ Isaac Bonewits details academically the Hallowe’en errors and lies he feels contribute to its being reviled. Some of the panic over Hallowe’en is akin to the hysteria, fortunately now debunked, over the supposed epidemic of ‘ritual Satanic abuse’ that swept the Western world in the ’90’s.

The horror film has become inextricably linked to Hallowe’en tradition, although the holiday itself did not figure in the movies until John Carpenter took the slasher genre singlehandedly by storm. Googling “scariest films”, you will, grimly, reap a mother lode of opinions about how to pierce the veil to journey to the netherworld and reconnect with that magical, eerie creepiness in the dark (if not the over-the-top blood and gore that has largely replaced the subtlety of earlier horror films).

In any case: trick or treat!


‘What Would President Romney Do?

See for yourself!.

“If you’re anywhere near the path of Hurricane Sandy and you’re still considering voting for a Republican, peer into the crystal ball of President Mitt Romney telling you to go fuck yourself in case of a catastrophe. According to the Mittster, when CNN’s John King asked him about FEMA, Federal funding for disaster relief is “immoral,” and is best left to the states or, “even better,” to the private sector.

Of course, unlike most of the residents of the Eastern seaboard all the way through to Michigan, when disaster strikes for Mitt Romney, he and Ann just pick up stakes, jump into their private jet and head off to another one of their palatial homes. Not his fault you don’t work hard enough. He sent you a bus, didn’t he, moocher?

I just read that Obama says that he doesn’t expect the hurricane to have much of an effect on the election, but I’d say this is a net gain for him, not Romney, but especially with videotape like this around to haunt the GOP nominee. Federal emergency aid? IMMORAL! Tax cuts for millionaire “job creators”? Bring it on!

You’d have to have your head examined to vote for Romney in the face of an act of God like this one. Would Romney really give the cold shoulder to red states caught up in devastation? He says he would, let’s take him at his word.” (Dangerous Minds)


Richard Mourdock Is Not Alone


Richard Mourdock - Caricature

At Least A Dozen GOP Senate Candidates Oppose Abortion For Rape Victims: “GOP Senate candidates Richard Mourdock and Todd Akin have faced outrage and derision from both Democrats and Republicans for their controversial comments about whether rape victims should have access to abortion.

Akin famously said that women who have been victims of a “legitimate rape” are physically unable to become pregnant. Mourdock, more recently, said he believes that pregnancies resulting from these horrific assaults are “something God intended.”

At the heart of these comments is their belief that rape victims who become pregnant should not be able to have access to abortion. While Akin and Mourdock perhaps stumbled in explaining why they hold this view, it’s a position that is actually not that uncommon in their party: At least 11 other GOP Senate nominees this cycle, as well as dozens of House candidates and incumbents, agree.” (Huffington Post)


‘Kill us all, then bury us here’

Desperate appeal of Indians facing eviction: “A group of Brazilian Indians who endured violence and death to return to their land have made a dramatic appeal to the government after learning that they face eviction once more.The 170 Indians, members of the 46,000-strong Guarani tribe in Brazil, have suffered several brutal attacks since going back to a small part of their ancestral land. The Indians’ territory, known as Pyelito Kuê/ M’barakai, is now occupied by a ranch. The Indians are surrounded by the rancher’s gunmen, with little access to food or health care.Last month a judge ordered their eviction. Now the Indians have declared in a letter, ‘This ruling is part of the historic extermination of the indigenous peoples of Brazil. We have lost hope


of surviving with dignity, and without violence, on our ancestral land… We will all die soon.‘We want to die and be buried with our ancestors right here, so we ask the government and the justice system not to order our eviction, but to order our collective death and our burial here. We ask, once and for all, for our slaughter to be ordered, and for tractors to dig a big hole for our bodies.‘We have decided, all together, not to leave here, dead or alive.’Four Guarani from the community have already died since the reoccupation: two from suicide, and two following attacks by gunmen. lFUNAI, Brazil’s indigenous affairs department, which is responsible for mapping out Guarani land, and demarcating it, says it is working to overturn the eviction order.” (Survival International).


If we’re heading for a split or a tie…

English: Cartogram of the 2008 Electoral Vote ...
Cartogram of the 2008 Electoral Vote

Jonathan Bernstein writes in The Washington Post: “With the latest polls suggesting at least the possibility of an electoral college/national vote split — most likely where President Obama wins the electoral college while Mitt Romney narrowly wins the national vote — I’ll make one suggestion. It may be a good idea for Bob Schieffer to carve out two or three minutes during the final debate to get the candidates to commit on record in advance, in a very public place, that they would fully support the electoral college winner – or, in the even more unlikely event of an electoral college tie, the winner of the vote in the House of Representatives. He could also ask them, for what it’s worth, of their view of the electoral college system in general, since we may be headed for controversy about it.”


Search And Watch Every American News Broadcast Since 2009

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 01:  Sam Fruzzetti, of Wa...

“Quickly search for and watch any sentence spoken on American TV news since 2009. It’s the latest offering from The Internet Archive, and it simply needs to be seen in order to be believed.

CNN, Fox News and MSNBC’s broadcast schedule in its entirety is backed up here, as is every major network’s nightly news programs and news magazines. Even The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are completely searchable on this single site – just type a term and if it shows up in the closed captioning records, you’ll see a video, instantly.

A total of 350,000 news programs are here, from the national news networks as well as local stations in San Francisco and Washington D.C., according to the services’ About page. New material is added a mere 24 hours after broadcast, meaning the entirety of at least two recent debates is already online and searchable.” (makeuseof).


Massive and illegal geoengineering project detected off Canada’s west coast

“A private company backed by a controversial U.S. businessman has unilaterally conducted the world’s most significant geoengineering project to date. Russ George, in conjunction with a First Nations village on Haida Gwaii, has dumped around 100 tonnes of iron sulphate into the Pacific Ocean in a technique known as ocean fertilization. The experiment, which is in violation of two United Nations moratoria, has outraged environmental, legal, and civic groups.The iron sulphate was dumped into the Pacific back in July, but recent satellite images are now confirming its effects — an artificial plankton bloom that’s 10,000 square kilometers 6,214 square miles in size. The intention of the project is for the plankton to absorb carbon dioxide and then sink to the bottom of the ocean. George is hoping to cash in on lucrative carbon credits.” (io9).


The Probability That You Are Dreaming Right Now? 1 in 10


“In Reality: A Very Short Introduction from Oxford University Press, philosophy professor and metaphysics researcher Jan Westerhoff explores the enormously difficult, yet enormously alluring question of what is really real. Among the book’s most fascinating mind-benders is [a] passage on the probability — the jarringly high probability, if all the math and hypotheticals check out — that you are dreaming right now.” (Brain Pickings)


Brazilian Doomsday cult in feared mass suicide poisoning bid

Map of Piauí highlighting Teresina.

“Cops fear a mass suicide after more than 100 doomsday cult members in Brazil barricaded themselves inside a house to await “the end of the world”. Leader and self-proclaimed prophet Luis Pereira dos Santos, has convinced his followers the apocalypse will happen today at 8pm GMT (4pm local time).

They are preparing to kill themselves by drinking soup laced with rat poison, authorities believe. Santos – known to his flock as Daddy Luis – claims an angel visited him four years ago telling him the exact time the world was going to end. Last month the 43-year-old cult leader instructed his 113 followers to leave their jobs, give away all their possessions and take their children out of school. The group have since been holed up inside a ten-bedroomed house, which they call The Ark, on the outskirts of Teresina, the capital of Brazil’s north-eastern state, Piaui.

Fifty military policemen forced their way in and removed 19 babies and children after receiving “credible” information that the group were planning to kill themselves by drinking poison.    A “significant quantity” of rat poison was found at the residence during the operation, which met little resistance from the cult members, a police spokesman said. Apocalypse group leader Santos said he didn’t fear the police, denying that the group were planning to drink poison.” (The Sun)


Universe is a computer simulation? German scientists say they can find out

N-universe illustration

‘What if we are just operating on some alien supercomputer? Could we run some tests to find out? Apparently, we’re getting there.

As TechSpot says it, “even the most powerful universe simulation would be subject to certain limitations of its host universe. The team believes those limitations would be observable by its inhabitants, too.” Finding those limitations involves studying how particles travel through the universe and how they might react to the edge of the universe, Wired reported.’ {GlobalPost)


Would you survive?

“It was a unique and groundbreaking experiment to show British television viewers the true effects of a jet disaster.

After four years of preparation a Boeing 727 was crashed into the Mexican desert – answering the question most consider when getting on a plane – where should someone sit to give themselves the best chance of survival.

And in a macabre twist, people logged into Facebook last night could ‘check-in online’, choose where they would have sat on the flight and after the terrifying collision, which ripped off the front of the jet in a cloud of sand, debris and twisted metal, they found out if they had died or survived.

The impact was pulled off deliberately for a documentary by the Discovery Channel and Channel 4 exploring the results of a ‘serious, but survivable’ crash-landing – producing incredible footage of its demise.

And its conclusion was that despite having the best seats and service on the plane, being in first or business class makes you less likely to survive a crash landing.” (Mail Online)


Editors Won’t Let It Be When It Comes to ‘the’ or ‘The’

The Beatles

“The Beatles once sang, “Have you heard the word is love?” In a Wikipedia war raging around the group, the word is “the.” For some eight years, editors at the online encyclopedia have been debating whether the article “the” should be uppercased when referring to the band. Is it “the” Beatles or “The” Beatles?

The lowercase faction says the Wikipedia manual of style and external style guides are on its side. The uppercase faction says that trademarks should be capitalized and that the official Beatles website uses an uppercase definite article.

The dispute has become so contentious that some Wikipedia editors have been banned from participating. “Discussions on this page may escalate into heated debate,” warns the internal “Talk” page where editors discuss changes to the Beatles entry.” (WSJ.com)


Why does hot water freeze faster than cold?

“How can hot water freeze faster than cold? In order to freeze, hot water has to lose more heat than cold, so why would that happen faster? Even if the cooling of hot water somehow catches up with that of the colder water, why should it then overtake, if the two have at that point the same temperature? Yet this effect has been attested since antiquity. Aristotle mentions it, as do two of the fathers of modern science, Francis Bacon and René Descartes in the 17th century. The effect is today named after a Tanzanian schoolboy, Erasto Mpemba, who was set the project of making ice cream from milk in the 1960s.” (m.guardiannews.com/commentisfree/)


Are Those Spidery Black Things On Mars Dangerous?

“You are 200 miles directly above the Martian surface — looking down. This image was taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on Jan. 27, 2010. (The color was added later.) What do we see? Well, sand, mostly. As you scroll down, there’s a ridge crossing through the image, then a plain, then dunes, but keep looking. You will notice, when you get to the dunes, there are little black flecks dotting the ridges, mostly on the sunny side, like sunbathing spiders sitting in rows. Can you see them?”

“What are those things? They were  first seen in 1998; they don’t look like anything we have here on Earth. To this day, no one is sure what they are, but we now know this: They come, then they go. Every Martian spring, they appear out of nowhere, showing up — 70 percent of the time — where they were the year before. They pop up suddenly, sometimes overnight. When winter comes, they vanish.” (Krulwich Wonders…)